Constitution gives sheriff authority

Written by Stephen Donnell February 22, 2013 09:00 am

Unlawful federal firearm laws are in the news judging by the number of Community Comments and Letters to the Editor being published in The Observer. 

The Observer published material in date order: Jan. 20, Kevin Cahill, “Sheriffs damage claim to our trust”; Charles Jones, “Sheriff’s stand raises questions”; Feb. 1, Anne Morrison, “Uphold all of the Constitution, not just parts sheriff likes”; Gene Erwin, “Sheriff’s only responsible to us, the voters”; Kathryn Boula, “Security achievable without creating armed garrisons.” 

After the end of the American Revolutionary War, Congress held its first session on Sept. 13, 1788. (No Bill of Rights, i.e., Second Amendment at the time.) However, Dec. 15, 1791, the Bill of Rights became effective. At that time, the Bill of Rights was not applied to the states until the ratification of the 14th Amendment, July 9, 1869. It was only when two recent Supreme Court decisions brought self defense and ownership of firearms under Second Amendment protection. 

The sheriff gains his authority from the Oregon Constitution. He is the only constitutionally authorized law enforcement office (person) in the state. That makes the sheriff the highest ranking enforcer of state law. At the same time, he might or might not enforce federal laws. 

The United States is composed of a federal government with a Constitution and Bill of Rights. Fifty states have a Constitution and some form of Bill of Rights which block the states from enacting certain types of laws.

In the Supreme Court opinion about the Obama Health Care bill, Justice Roberts wrote: “Today the restriction on government power foremost in many Americans minds are likely to be affirmative prohibitions such as contained in the Bill of Rights. These affirmative prohibitions come into play, however, only when the government possesses authority to act in the first place. If no enumerated power authorize Congress to pass a certain law, that law may not be enacted, even if it would not violate any of the express prohibitions in the Bill of Rights or elsewhere in the
Constitution.” 

Later on, Roberts writes: “The states are separate and independent sovereigns. Sometimes they have to act like it.” 

Our Union County sheriff is not alone in taking the position that he will not enforce any law(s) the federal government passes that are contrary to our state Constitution as determined by Oregon courts. 

For instance, the federal government says marijuana is illegal and if you have a medical marijuana card and marijuana, you are breaking federal law. Oregon Supreme Court says you are not breaking Oregon law. Ask yourself, which law shall the sheriff enforce? To jail with a gun-owning pot medical card holder or not to jail? 

Those of you who were involved in the forest road issue learned the federal forest officers can arrest only on Forest Service land. Our sheriff can decide if his officers will allow feds to enforce off Forest Service land. Talk to any sheriff. They can tell you of many other examples of where sheriffs have to make decisions as to what is illegal and not illegal when dealing with conflict between federal law and Oregon law. 

Any additional legislation that denies the American people the ability to purchase firearms for purpose of self-protection must be challenged if the sheriff is to uphold all of the requirements of the body of Oregon law we live under.  

Stephen Donnell lives in La Grande.